The case of Ashley Mote (see here), the former MEP who has been sentenced to five years in prison for fiddling over £400,000 out of the European Parliament, brings, once again, the issue of parliamentary expenses to the forefront of public debate. To be fair to most of the MPs involved in the 2008/09 debacle, Mote’s case is on a different level to some of the indiscretions committed back then. Mote has been convicted of deception, false accounting, concealing criminal property and theft – that’s a fair bit heavier than quite legally using a system to, for example, claim £3,371 for a new set of furniture (Nick Ainger, Labour) or £980 for bookshelves (Peter Bottomley, Conservative – see here for a full list of who claimed for what in 2008/09). Moat, it would appear, is in a small but quite distinct league of criminals who don’t just bend the rules to suit their own interests, but choose to flagrantly flout them; the famous five MPs who went to prison on account of expenses’ claimed (David Chaytor, Jim Devine, Eric Illsley, Denis MacShane and Elliot Morley) can, with the addition of Moat, now become known as the the Sleazy Six.
Moat’s case is not, however, a particularly useful one in helping anti-corruption scholars work out ways to move the debate on what could, should and should not be claimed on expenses forward. He’s clearly broken the rules, he’s been caught and he’s going to pay for it. But working out what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of expenses claims is still not as easy as many people think it should be. At the beginning of 2014, for example, the Daily Mail (see here) ran a story expressing nothing short of outrage at the pettiness of claiming 30p for a jam doughnut (Rosie Cooper, Labour – for the record, I’d very much like to know where these 30p doughnuts are available, as that is an excellent price), 4p for travel (Tristam Hunt, Labour), 7p for a paper clip (David Cameron, Conservative), 49p for a door mat (John Barrett, Lib Dem – are MPs now shopping at Poundland? That’s a super deal) and 19p for Blu-Tac (Pat McFadden, Labour). The downright insignificance of some of these claims to one side, the Mail was also enraged as they (the MPs) simply “don’t seem to get it”. What precisely they don’t “seem to get” remained tantalisingly unclear, as no effort whatsoever was put in to outlining what the perfect expenses regime would look like. That, it seems, is not the Daily Mail’s job. It’s much more straightforward to point out some of the quirks within the system, some of the grey areas and some of the more bizarre claims. Ideas on how to put this right? No suggestions forthcoming.
It is easy to see both why voters will be annoyed at seeing MPs claim money back on the most trivial of things and why the Mail (amongst others) refused to outline how we might move this debate forward. The ‘new’ post-2009 expenses regime, headed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, is undoubtedly tighter and better regulated than the system that came before it, but making value judgments on what is and what is not an acceptable expense is actually very difficult. MPs have long grumbled that IPSA is a bureaucratic nightmare, although few have dared say that in public. IPSA’s challenge is to create a system that can be consistent, fair and flexible. MPs have different needs (i.e. if your constituency is Newcastle upon Tyne Central then you should surely be entitled to claim more in travel costs than if you represent, for example, London-based Twickenham) and they face different challenges in their daily work patterns; the expenses system needs to reflect this and needs to be quick enough on its feet to recognise the difference between legitimate and illegitimate claims. If anyone reading this blog thinks they have the answer, then IPSA will no doubt be very keen to hear from you.